Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chinese Scribbles

About a year ago, I took a week off to hang out in Yangshuo, near Guilin. If you're ever planning time in southern China, this is a must-visit. The photo to the right was taken right out of my hotel room window! (Apologies for the quality, it was taken with my mobile, through a closed window.)

I chose to travel alone for that week, for two reasons. Firstly, I was planning on spending a few hours a day doing volunteer-teaching at a local English school, and secondly I wanted to practise speaking Chinese - and having an English-speaking friend with me would have been a distraction. (If you remember, last January I wrote about ideas for things I could volunteer with while in China, and ended up choosing the teach-English option.)

At the time of my travels, I had scribbled some notes about what I was experiencing - as a Mandarin student - intending to write an article about it for Mandarin Segments. However, I lost those notes, and the article was never written. Until now.

Yes, this morning I found an old backup file from my previous Blackberry, containing some of the scribbles.

This post is just a set of bullet points from my time there, all in relation to learning Mandarin. I would love to hear from you if any of these strike a chord with you too.

  • I arrived in Beijing, and then took a shuttle to a different part of the airport in order to get my flight to Guilin. As the shuttle bus was pulling up, an announcement came over the speakers which said, "The terminal has arrived."  I smiled to myself, pleased that people make mistakes from Chinese to English, and therefore I shouldn't feel guilty if I made mistakes over the next week going from English to Chinese.
  • In Beijing airport, I overheard one security guard starting a conversation with another, where he started of his sentence as follows, "Gum'r ..."  I had heard that expression in a ChinesePod lesson before - it means "dude" - but this is the first time I had heard it in the wild
  • (It's actually written: 哥们儿 (gēmenr), or just ​哥们 (gēmen) if you're not in Beijing.)
  • Then, while riding the bus from Guilin to Yangshuo, I learned my first word of the trip, without trying. We drove past a petrol station, and I remember seeing the following characters as part of the name of the petrol company: 石油 (shíyóu). I already knew that 石 means 'rock' and 油 means 'oil' - so I deduced that 石油 must mean petrol ("gas", for the Americans reading this :-). So easy.
  • Also on that bus, I sat next to a Chinese woman who works in Yangshuo - and we swapped language-learning horror stories. I remember her correcting some of my tones, which I appreciated. And I taught her how to say, "She sells seashells on the sea shore" - you should have seen the joy on her face when she finally recited it free of errors.
  • While doing some shopping along the famous West Street, I spoke Chinese every chance I got. I remember the one vendor was absolutely shocked that I knew how to read the characters: 孙子 (Sūnzǐ, or Sun Tzu - author of The Art of War), and that I knew the Chinese word for 'pearls' (珍珠, or zhēnzhū​- although I only knew that because I knew how to say "pearl bubble tea" in Chinese :-)
  • Even though we were well within the borders of the People's Republic of China, I was surprised that there was so much writing in 'traditional' and not the 'simplified' script. I remember discussing it with the one waitress at a coffee shop, trying to understand why 'traditional' was being used. A couple of days later I stopped at the same place for another great coffee, and I remember the waitress asking me (in English), "Are you the traditional Chinese guy?"  Haha - I've never been called that before.
  • In comparison with my previous trip to China, it was clear to me that I was understanding a greater proportion of the conversations that I was over-hearing. Small victories ... huge pleasure ...
  • Then there was the evening when I ate a pig's penis. I passed a stall that was selling everything on skewers - all you had to do is choose what sticks you want, they'd grill it and then serve it. I could easily identify the prawns, the beef, the larvae, and the snake. But there was one I couldn't identify - although I guessed what it was! The waiters spoke no English, but I could understand zhū (pig: 猪 or 豬), and zàng (organ: 脏 or 臟). I asked them to point where on my body I could find this organ (after all, it might have been the spleen, for example) but the girls just giggled and the guys just shrugged. I kept the receipt, and have since been able to confirm that 猪鞭 (zhūbiān) is indeed a pig's penis.
  • In case you're wondering it's extremely long, thin, and really crunchy due to the cartilage. Yes, crunchy.
  • I was constantly being harassed by people trying to get me to go on their bamboo boat rides. In other cities, "zhēnde bùyào' (真的不要)("I really don't want it") has normally been very effective for getting these people to leave me alone. But even that was not powerful enough for the hawkers in Yangshuo! But I quickly discovered that my saying "wǒ yǐjīng qù guò le" ("我已经去过了")("I've already been") was all I needed to be left alone.
  •  My first few attempts at this involved saying "我已经去了" - but after two of these hawkers corrected my grammar :-)  I moved to the longer sentence of "我已经去了". I didn't want to give the impression that I had already "passed over" and thus was dead.
  • Sometimes I would ask a question (like: Where is the stairway?) and they would answer me. I wouldn't understand so I'd ask them to repeat. They would say it again using the same words at the same speed. I'd ask them to repeat, and it was almost like a comedy sketch - it didn't matter how many times I'd ask them to repeat, they would also maintain the same speed and use the same words - no attempt to slow down, no attempt to clarify. 
  • (I normally stopped asking after 5 repeats, and pretended I finally understood them. Then I'd go ask someone else.)
  • The one evening I met a Chinese woman who was working in Yangshuo and also an Israeli guy who was there for the rock climbing - and the three of us strangers spent the evening chatting. It was rather a surreal experience, trying to explain to her what a Jew is, since she'd never come across the concept before!
  • Interestingly, the waitress serving us claimed to have a Masters degree in linguistics. It's an easy claim for anyone to make, but on the basis of the conversations we had with her, I would say I really did believe her.
  • It's funny - when you're learning Chinese you sometimes memorise words that you think you're unlikely to ever use again. In my case, one such word was 翅膀 (chìbǎng)  - meaning 'wings'. And yet I am pleased to report that I did use that word, in Yangshuo! I was trying on a pair of trousers, and they really seemed to be "flappy" at the sides. She was trying to understand why I didn't like them - so I pulled on the pockets and explained it's because the trousers have 'wings'. She laughed as she got it - and went off to find a better pair for me.
In general, I had lots of conversations. And I got a lot of compliments. But I'm not deluding myself - I know what standard my Chinese is! After all, when they compliment me after I say "nǐhǎo" (你好)(hello), that was my clue that they hadn't yet done a full assessment. But they were nevertheless very genuine about their pleasure that a foreigner went as far as nǐhǎo, and that felt good.

I also made a lot of mistakes. And yet I felt no embarrassment whatsoever - I was pleased to be trying, and sometimes succeeding.

No matter what your level of Chinese, go spend some time in China - ideally outside the big cities (where English is an easy way out). Go practise - it's amazing how much your confidence and your 'flow' will increase after that.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences ...